Lydia Lee Sanchez
Dad explained to me several years ago that mother was a vital woman. I already knew that from going to the beach with her or grocery shopping. Her wiggle wasn’t vital but mythic. More than one man told me that she had the best ass in Morro Bay.
Photo by Stacey Warde
By M. Frias May
Around Tehachapi, mother spoke to me for the first time in an hour. Up until now, she’d been looking out her window and writing in her journal.
“I don’t want you to call me mother for the rest of the trip.”
I glanced at her and she was serious.
“You okay with that?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
A long silence passed between us. I swerved to miss a tumbleweed, and mother said, “You can call me, D.”
The “D” made a little sense. Her name was Lydia and dad often called her Dia. Shortening it to D didn’t seem weird, but why now, on our way to Vegas, did she want distance from me?
I didn’t ask. I was her driver. Dad called the trip a sabbatical for Lydia Lee Sanchez, the writer. She’d been complaining about stagnation and dad suggested she spend a few nights in Steinbeck country. She said she was sick of the coast and piped up with her idea about Vegas. Dad turned white. He wasn’t going to let her roam around sin city by herself and mother latched onto the word “let” and a big old argument started that lasted for a week.
I became the compromise, and mother said she had no problem with that. When they came to me with the plan, I pretended I hadn’t heard anything and said, “Why not?”
I’m an only child and have gotten everything I wanted—except peace between them. They are the ones that need watching. They’re in their late 30s, opposite as light and dark, and you can already guess who the dark is.
About an hour into our drive, mother asked me what I thought about the rash of domestic disputes this past weekend in Cayucos. She had her shoes off and her toes were resting on a paper bag that held a sequined jumpsuit she smuggled out of the house.
“Virus,” I ventured, and mother didn’t answer. She tugged off her beanie and I could hear her fingers snapping loose knots in her thick black hair. I knew she wasn’t ignoring me. She pulled down the visor and checked her face in the mirror. She was islander pretty with plump lips and gray eyes. She said, “I think it’s paranoia, seasonal paranoia.”
I knew she was referring to the men because the women in her books aren’t afraid of anything.
“What are they afraid of?”
Mother flipped up the visor. “Each other,” she said. “Men know what they’re like when they’re together and when they’re not they get scared.”
“Oh,” I said. “Great. Fear and anger. That’s what I get to look forward to.”
She reached out and touched my arm. “You’re different.”
“You mean I’m more like you than dad.”
She pinched me and laughed. “Of course,” she said. “What seventeen-year -old would go on a road trip with his mother?”
She let it hang there and I was glad. I didn’t want to get into a critical discussion. I preferred her writing and silence to her analysis and cures. But when she told me to call her D, I got a little worried, and afraid.
When we approached the town of Mojave, she said, “I could live here.” She’d been sitting cross-legged since Wasco, writing, sketching, sighing, anything but talking to me. She was now restless and I remember what dad told me before we left. “Don’t let her out of your sight. She’s a little off right now and you know what I mean. Let her have her way but be there when she’s having it, understand?”
He handed me five hundred dollars.
“She doesn’t know you have this. Only use it if you need it.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Call me when you get there.”
“She might see something and want to change the plan but don’t let her. Stay on course.”
It was a bizarre exchange while mother was in the bathroom. Dad left me by the door and drove off to his job as restaurant manager. I didn’t think about his talk until she said, “Let’s stop.”
She was brushing her hair, arching her spine.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“I want to explore a little.”
“Explore what? Used cars and bars, I mean, I was hoping we’d get to Vegas by dark.”
“Look at that,” she said, pointing to Casa de Gasa. “Where in the world you going to find a gas station named that. We got stories here.”
“There’s plenty of stories in Vegas,” I said, trying not to look at her because she was hyper and ready. “It’ll be fun,” she said.
I looked at the stretch of buildings on my left, one-story highway places with winter weary locals coming and going, and knew Mojave was trouble. I lowered my voice. “It doesn’t look fun.”
“You have no imagination, mi’jo.”
Oh, God, Spanish. Whenever she spiced a line with a Spanish word, pouting was coming. She broke her pencil, found a pen in the glove compartment and started writing again. I felt bad denying her a few minutes of walking around but dad’s talk was fresh in my head. And her wanting me to call her D didn’t bolster my sense of trust. It was too early to stray.
“On the way back we can stop if you want,” I said, but mother was silent. I shifted in my seat, preparing myself for a long thorny silence. A sameness of landscape cropped up, flat and parched under a weak winter sky. I counted a dozen Wal-Mart trucks. I asked her if she thought the people in Boron were boring but she stayed aloof and busy with her pen.
The deeper we drove in the desert, the more I understood what she was getting at. In Tehachapi, there were windmills dotted along the rocky hills. It was pretty and unusual but you didn’t have to walk up to one to figure that out. Mohave’s charm was its isolation and sense that the government thought it a perfect location for an air force base. Who lived here and why were questions that had to be asked face-to-face and Lydia Lee Sanchez was the woman who could ask them without being nosy or intrusive. She’d just say to a waitress, “Where can I play bingo?” and off they’d go like reunion girlfriends, talking and talking.
As we neared Barstow, I was feeling guilty. She was cleaning her nails, looking tired and bored. This had to end.
“Now, I could live here,” I said, knowing she’d either clam up until Vegas or hear what roundabout apology I’d give.
She looked to the north where new stucco developments were fitted into old stucco sprawl. “Barstow,” she said with disgust.
“Yeah, Barstow,” I said. “I bet in the summer all the girls wear cutoffs and crunch ice cubes and I bet all the old coots drive Riveras.”
A smile twitched on her face. “And I bet they got long silvery ear hairs and have emphysema and eczema.”
Her smile was widening.
“And they’re pissed about the Dodgers,” I said. “And they’re pissed about Wayne Newton getting nookie and the Jenny Rose Diner serving shit on a shingle again.”
She touched my shoulder with her head. “I’m not mad,” she said, “but next time we do what I say.”
We reached Vegas around eight. I think D drank an airline bottle of something at a station near Baker. She made me drive by the World’s Tallest Thermometer at Bob’s Big Boy. I didn’t argue. We’d been pretty chummy since Barstow and I didn’t want to ruin it. Besides, she was letting me push the Lexus to a hundred without saying anything and that was fun.
Dad had booked us into the Venetian, a billion-dollar hotel on the strip. The valets were in red-striped shirts and black pants and inside it looked like Michelangelo and his crew worked on the flooring and fountain.
I did the checking in and was told most of the shows were blacked out the week before Christmas. This wasn’t good. I hadn’t considered making plans. I glanced over at mother. She still had her sunglasses on and three Asian men in suits were watching her take off her coat.
I got a couple card keys and joined her.
“Well, what do you think?”
“I don’t,” she said. “I’m tired. I’ll tell you after a nap.”
We strolled down an ornate palace-sized hallway to the casino, which was noisy with slots going off. My stomach pitched a little. I could get used to this.
Our room was on the 14th floor and we could see the Stratosphere needle and the dark craggy hills in the distance. Mother wandered away from the window and plopped face down on a king-sized bed. “There’s a tip in my purse for the porter,” she said.
Her calling the bellboy a porter was a clue I missed and shouldn’t have. He showed up with jelled hair and white teeth. He pushed in the cart far enough to get a look at D on the bed. Her bulbous Spandex fanny was almost stuck in the air. When she was really exhausted, she slept this way and it didn’t seem strange to me, or the porter. He was talking to me but staring at her butt. “You need anything,” he said, “ask for Raul.”
He wouldn’t take the tip.
“Aye yie yie,” he said, soaking in D’s hiney for a few more seconds before he left.
I didn’t get mad or protective. Dad explained to me several years ago that mother was a vital woman. I already knew that from going to the beach with her or grocery shopping. Her wiggle wasn’t vital but mythic. More than one man told me that she had the best ass in Morro Bay.
I made sure she was asleep before I phoned dad.
“He’s not here,” said Louise, the bartender.
“Just tell him we’re here and safe and we love him.”
“That you, Bear?”
I hated the nickname. I was big and prematurely hairy and I hated to be reminded about it. “It’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“What are you doin’ there?”
“Looking for the muse.” There was a long pause on Louise’s end. “Mother’s here. It’s her sabbatical.”
“Oh,” Louise said. “I don’t know where he is. He left about an hour ago but if he comes back I’ll have him ring you.”
I took at peek at Mother. She was snoring and undulating a little. “Dad didn’t say anything about us being out of town?”
Louise hemmed. “He might’ve. You know me—all boobs and no brain. He could have. He probably did.”
I felt uneasy after I hung up. I’d caught dad a couple times playing patty cake with a waitress or divorcée. He’s Nordic looking, ski-bum handsome and almost sickeningly nice to everyone. Not a woman in town doesn’t know him and his looks and his manners. But where was he?
The marquee lights weren’t giving me any answers but I stared at them anyway. I settled into the sofa, looking at the grinning Circus Circus clown. I closed my eyes, wondering what dad was doing.
I woke up with a stiff neck. There was a note on my king-sized bed.
“I went out for some air. Be back soon. D.”
I could smell perfume in the room. Her suitcase was still in the closet and the ironing board was out. The brown bag was ripped open and her sequined jump suit was gone. She and dad had an argument about the jumpsuit. He said it was a bit much for a mother to be wearing with her son. Now she was in it and I had no idea where she’d go to get the air she needed.
I phoned down to the front desk and asked for Raul to bring up a bottle of champagne. He arrived in about five minutes, toothy and sly.
“A party for when she returns, bueno.”
“When did you see her last, Raul?”
Raul placed the champagne on a table by the window. He was being evasive. “Oh, 9:45, 10.” He was sweating. I held up a twenty-dollar bill.
“Do you know where she’s at, Raul?”
“I’m not going to get mad. I just want to find her.” My strained voice was intimidating him. “Raul, it’s important.”
I’d seen my dad deal with dishwashers and busboys and screaming wasn’t a motivational tool that got patrone respect.
“I need my job,” he said, wiping his lips.
“I won’t say anything.”
“Those nagels.” Raul steepled his fingers, kissed them and groaned. “They talked to me.”
I pretended I’d taken a Valium. “They talk to everyone, Raul.”
“She spoke to me in Spanish.”
“What did she say?”
He looked down at the floor for the first time. He was man raised with some shame and was showing it. “She said I was prettier than Kits and she said every pretty man has one great poem in him.”
He puffed up from the memory and looked me in the eye. “Who is this Kits?”
“Keats,” I said. “He’s a poet who wrote great and died young.”
Raul shivered. “She went to the Bellagio to watch the water.”
I had Raul as a willing lookout if mother showed up before me. I skipped the taxi, figuring she’d seen the waterworks and might be on her way back. It was chilly and crowded on the strip. I couldn’t enjoy the lights or the characters with mother out here being D. I only hoped for some luck and more champagne.
I’d already had a tantrum after Raul left. I kicked a hole in the TV, drank the champagne and ate most of the chocolate out of the honor bar. I took a shower, jerked off, and got angry again. This whole scene wasn’t right. It was unbelievable. It was like I’d lost free will and then was ordered to protect the person who took it from me. It wasn’t fair but fairness wasn’t going to get D back in the room.
At the Excalibur, I turned around and decided to do a little interior work, even though I doubted her gambling tendencies. Games we played focussed on vocabulary or strategy, not odds and alcohol, but that was mother and D was different.
In about an hour, I covered the insides of New York, New York, Caesar’s and the Mirage but I wasn’t sensing her among the bleary-eyed gamblers and drinkers. The car ride didn’t offer up any clues about who D might be. Except for the incident in Mohave, mother was workmanlike in filling up the pages of her journal. The only true odd thing was the jumpsuit she kept on the floor by her feet. I’d seen her wear it on New Year’s Eve last year. It clung and sparkled on her body. She looked like every man’s woman for a night. I remembered dad returning late in the morning, with mother draped over his shoulder. “She had fun,” he said.
Back at the Venetian, I lingered in the casino, pulling slots and looking for Raul. I drank a Bloody Mary and struck up a conversation with Patty, the cocktail waitress. She was working on her master’s in Urban Lit at UNLV. She was tall and tired. I thought, why not, and said, “You ever hear of Lydia Lee Sanchez.”
“You got to be kidding.”
“No,” I said.
“She’s a diva.”
Mother had published a couple of novellas at a small press in LA. One was about women urinating in public and the other dealt with hitchhiking whores. Patty asked, “You’ve read her?”
“Sure.” Patty had an overbite but her teeth were straight and her smile inviting.
“I don’t meet many people who read, at least here.”
She touched my arm. “You want to get some coffee after I get off?”
We agreed to meet at Denny’s in an hour. I had mixed feelings. I felt obligated to hang around the room and wait but I don’t get many invitations from leggy girls who want to discuss my mother’s work. Could be just plain crap but I couldn’t pass up the kismet I was feeling.
I stuck in the card key and entered the room. What I saw was Raul, jumping off the bed and sputtering, “Oh, Señor Bear, it’s nothing, I swear.”
Mother was lying on her stomach, clothed but dazed. “That you, honey?”
Raul was trying to hide his arousal and compete with my menacing stare.
“Where you been, D?”
Mother ignored me. “Raul, you have the hands of a baker.”
“D,” I said, louder.
“Here and there,” she said, “getting my air like I said in the note.”
“I’m not accountable.”
“I see. And Raul?”
She rolled onto her side, giving Raul his view while she talked to me. “Raul told me a story he never told anyone and I told him I was going to use it and he, clever little man he is, asked for payment. I said, ‘how much?’ And he said, ‘how long can I rub your nagles for the story?’ I said, ‘the jumpsuit stays on’ and he agreed.”
I peered at Raul.
“Forty minutes,” he said, “I have twenty left. A deal is a deal.”
I could have easily pitched Raul out the window. I was strong enough but not mad enough. She was home and seemed fine.
“Raul,” I said, “I’m not paying for the TV or missing chocolate.”
“No problema. I switch it out with the one next door.”
Raul lunged toward Mother’s ass and I grabbed his arm. “Now, señor.”
He unplugged the TV and I held open the door while he lugged it out. Mother said, “You going to let him back in?”
She was sitting up, playing with her hair. I didn’t feel like her son. I said, “Why should I?”
“Because he told me a story that will probably win me a prize.”
Her blandness got to me. “Don’t you think any of this is strange?”
“Of course, I do,” she said. “I should be in an institution but is that going to help you any?”
“No, but is it going to help you?”
“I’m getting a great story and my nagles rubbed. What do you think?”
Raul was knocking on the door. I was losing patience. Mother said, “I told Raul that you tore the ears off the last man that disrespected me. He’s horribly afraid of you but horribly obsessed with my nagles. He won’t try anything beyond the rubbing and kneading. I own him and if you don’t believe me, have a seat.”
“I can’t,” I said, “I have a date.”
She jumped off the bed, alarmed. “With who?”
“A student over at UNLV. Patty. She works in the casino.”
“Where you going?” She was getting huffy and I was enjoying it.
“Denny’s. It’s about a block from here.”
“You going to introduce her to me.”
“Sure, I’ll bring her up while Raul is patty pattin’ your behind.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I don’t get it. I walk into something bizarre and am expected to deal with it. Yet, you can’t seem to deal with something that’s normal. What does that mean?”
Her hands were on her hips. “It means I’m your mother and…”
“Oh,” I interrupted, “I thought you were D.”
Raul was pounding now. Mother tore away from my smirking face and flung open the door. Raul was frantic and mother said to him, “I won’t use the part about the parrot, so we’re done.” She slammed the door in his face. When she looked at me, she was livid and wagging her finger.
“I want to know who she is.”
“I don’t know. I just met her.”
“You have protection?”
“It’s not funny,” she said.
“I’m going to have coffee and conversation. That’s it.”
We stared at each other. She looked like a spoiled mahogany princess who was losing her pet. “Promise?” she said.
“When are you going to be back?”
“Depends on what she says.”
Mother didn’t like that answer. “Estimate.”
“I’ll be waiting,” she said.
I was uptight leaving mother alone. I didn’t see Raul or the TV around. I figured he was feeling gypped and obsessed and his desperation could lead to anything. Mother promised to not answer the door, providing I was home by three. Mother had to know what it feels like to be with a stranger in Vegas and I could tell she didn’t want me experiencing it.
I met Patty outside of Denny’s. She wore an overcoat and was eating a candy bar. We went in and found a secluded booth by the bathrooms.
“I don’t do this all the time,” she said. “I just want you to know.”
She was putting cream in her coffee and I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not. She had dry skin and looked like a woman who’d grown up in the water. She had a swimmer’s build and short blonde hair. She was playing cool and wise, saying, “I think anybody who’s read Lydia Lee Sanchez is worth a risk.”
“Isn’t that one of her themes,” I said, “taking risks?”
Patty acted like I whispered in her ear. She leaned toward me. “What kind of woman do you think she is?”
I could feel my nostrils widening and my face reddening. Patty didn’t deserve the truth because I couldn’t explain it clearly or accurately. “Difficult to say,” I said. “She is writing fiction.”
“How do you know?”
Again, I flushed. “Well, her stories take place in LA but she lives in Morro Bay. Has been for 15 or so years.”
Patty eyed me shrewdly. “Do you know her?” She didn’t expect my answer.
“Yes, she’s my mother.”
Her laugh stirred an Asian man I’d been glancing at ever since we sat down. In his drained face I could read his pity for me, and his disgust for Patty’s wheezing and coughing.
She reached for the water and I pulled it away. Her laughter was hurting her and I could see panic in her eyes. I let her giggle her way out of panic, which took about five minutes and a visit from the manager, a pasty, dandruffed man in his 50s, who said, “I’m sorry but you have to keep it down or leave because there’s nothing that funny, ma’am.”
Patty was upset after he left. She kept touching her hair, her collarbone, and the fork on the table. “Why you’d take the water from me?”
“You would have choked,” I said.
She was pissed. “You’re not really a Sanchez, are you?” My silence unsettled her and she started tearing her napkin. “I’m sorry,” she said, “if I insulted you but what are the odds…?” I remained unblinking and silent and she fidgeted and ripped at the napkin, thinking, no doubt, that she was screwing up an opportunity. She said, “I knew Lydia lived on the Central Coast but I couldn’t locate her real name.”
“Smith,” I said, “Lydia Smith. She’s here, in Vegas, waiting for me to return and I can tell you she’s not writing. She’s risking.”
Patty repeated the word.
“It’s how she gets ready to write,” I said. “She does something risky like letting in a stranger named Raul.”
Patty repeated his name.
“Bellboy at the Venetian. He’s in love with my mother’s nagles.”
My blandness undid her. She put her chapped hands flat on the table. She was angry again. “Are you making fun of me?”
Getting Patty up to the room wasn’t easy. My oddness and size seemed to undermine her confidence. My being nice made it worse. She said she had to go home and I said, “Patty, this is real. I’m her son. And she’s here and I’m sure she’ll talk to you.”
About what, I couldn’t guarantee, and Patty seemed to sense it and the possible danger. She showed her pepper spray and in her overcoat pocket was a handgun. She walked three steps behind me, saying, “If this is no joke, then I’m sorry I’m acting like this and I am grateful for you giving me a chance to talk to her but I swear, if it is, I will hurt you first.”
Her loud voice didn’t bother anyone on the street. It was bright and cold and the sun wouldn’t be up for a while. For a moment, I considered a call to mother’s room, giving her a “howdy do, I’m bringing home a psycho like you.” But what was the point. It would be less dangerous to introduce them, saying, “Patty, Lydia Lee Sanchez, my mother.”
And that’s exactly what I did. And mother’s reaction was the best. She stared at Patty like she was sour cheesecake. “My God,” Patty said, “I am the biggest fan, I mean, I am that and I am also a critic who thinks you are as important as Toni Morrison.”
“Come in,” mother said, “I want you to hear this.”
Raul stood by the window that let in the light of Vegas.
“Que Pasa, Raul,” I said, and he tightened up.
“That’s enough,” mother said.
Patty sat on the sofa near the window and I sat next to her. Mother joined Raul. His hand went to her ass and he squeezed it. In his glaring eyes, he was telling me he would die for the flesh he was rubbing.
“I just talked to your father and told him it was over and he said he knew that when he couldn’t find the jumpsuit.”
“It’s here,” Raul said, and he growled a little. I had a hard time disliking Raul’s fever. It was so flattering to mother.
“I’m going to write my next book at Raul’s,” she announced.
Patty couldn’t contain herself. She brought her trembling hands together. “If there’s anything, call me, please, I want to be part of the first draft.”
Mother’s jumpsuit was sparkling. Her beauty was fierce and her words stung me.
“You don’t have a say in this.”
“I know,” I said, remembering the five hundred bucks dad had given me, which I knew was cash to get home. “Is there anything else?”
My voice was dry and disappointed. Mother had tears in her eyes and I couldn’t tell if she was feeling sorry for me or relieved because of her decision. I got tears in my eyes and so did Raul. The silence was that long and strange.
“I hope there’s more,” Patty whispered, and I took her hand and squeezed it. §
M. Frias May writes from his home in Cambria. He can be reached at email@example.com.